A Worrier's Guide to Risk

As of the 23rd May 2022 this website is archived and will receive no further updates.

was produced by the Winton programme for the public understanding of risk based in the Statistical Laboratory in the University of Cambridge. The aim was to help improve the way that uncertainty and risk are discussed in society, and show how probability and statistics can be both useful and entertaining.

Many of the animations were produced using Flash and will no longer work.

The Worrier’s Guide to Risk is intended to be a one-page check-list to help people make more sense of the seemingly unending series of stories on risk. This is a first draft, that has been produced in association with the Risk and Regulation Advisory Council, which is an independent advisory group which aims to improve the understanding of public risk and how best to respond to it in making and implementing policy.

Life’s uncertain

- we don’t always know what will happen.

  1. Uncertainty can be fine. Would you want to know exactly how and when you were going to die? Not many would.
  2. Stuff happens. The overall pattern of events can often be predicted surprisingly well but not the detail. We can make a good guess at the number of car fatalities next year, but not who will be involved.
  3. Rare events are more common than you think. There are so many possible rare events we know some will happen but not which ones – someone usually wins the lottery.

Evidence can mislead us

- we often can’t see the full picture.

  1. Jumping to conclusions. The media reports crimes that make a good story – don’t assume the amount and type of crime reported reflects true crime rates.
  2. Runs of good/bad luck happen. Reduced accidents at an accident black spot may not be the speed camera but just a change from a run of bad luck.
  3. One thing may look like another. It doesn’t mean they are the same. Only a small fraction of the women who screen positive for breast cancer actually have the disease – the others are that much larger group of healthy women who just happen to have similar test results.
  4. The past is past. Things change, and as the banks always say and the credit crunch has proven, ‘past performance is not necessarily a guide to future performance’.

What about me

– should I worry?

  1. Am I bovvered? How does the danger relate to my circumstances? Seasonal flu is a serious risk to the elderly and chronically ill but not to healthy young adults.
  2. Can I do anything about it?
    • No? So don’t worry about things you can’t change. The asteroid that will destroy the earth may be on its way.
    • Yes, but … there’s more to life than maybe living a few extra days, weeks or months. “I would rather have the occasional bacon sarnie than be 110 and dribbling into my All-Bran”
  3. They would say that, wouldn’t they? Check who is making the claim. What is their interest in influencing me – personal, financial, commercial, religious, political, headlines etc?
  4. What am I not being told? He may well have got better after he took this wonder treatment, but am I being told about the people who didn’t get better?
  5. Size matters. A big increase in a very small risk may not be important - twice almost-nothing is still almost-nothing.

The key point is to get the ‘balance’ right for your life.

This guide is a first step - we intend to supplement this one-page summary with more detailed examples.
Please feel free to comment on whether you think such a guide could be helpful and how it could be improved.



Thank you, David.

This is all we need to say.

You may know of us - the Campaign for Adventure. We have worked since 2000 to get the balance right - risk and benefits. Facts and stories. Probability and Possibility. Tony Blair and Prince Philip were our two first supporters. This is your invitation to join us. We look forwards to collaboration in this ongoing drive for sensible understandings.
Ian Lewis
All party Parliamentary Group - Clerk

Thanks David

You might enjoy "The science news cycle"



Thanks for these words, David

One other thing that might be worth considering is that “if you understand risk, you can take more risk”. An example is perhaps in diving. The divers are drilled in Risk Management in order to allow them to undertake what is a risky adventure. Without understanding the risk, we would not be able to explore the deep seas, nor the skies and heavens above. In fact all of our modern life is based on managed risk taking.

Liz Taylor